Despite diminishing in size from its heyday, the yakuza remains an active force in modern Japan. In the 21st century, yakuza deal mainly in extortion, protection rackets, sex trafficking, gambling, real estate, and construction. Violent yakuza crimes usually involve rivalries between families, but sometimes target civilians. Most yakuza crimes in modern times are variations on things yakuza have been doing for decades, a white collar thrown in for good measure.
Unlike other crime syndicates, yakuza operate more or less in the open. Affiliation with a yakuza family is not illegal in Japan, and many families have offices and legitimate businesses. As you'll see with the below list, yakuza in modern times are deeply ingrained in the fabric of Japanese society, business, government, and finance, in part thanks to their rise in the wake of World War Two. If you wanna see some fictional yakuza in action, you can always check out a rundown of the best yakuza movies ever.
The Murder of Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito
Around 8:00 p.m. on April 17, 2007, Nagasaki mayor Itcho Ito (also spelled Iccho Itoh) was shot twice in the back with a revolver by Tetsuya Shiroo. Shiroo, a senior member of a Nagasaki affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza family, had a long-running conflict with city officials over damage done to his car when he drove it into a hole caused by construction. The city sided with the construction company.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Bruce Wallace suggests Shiroo's real motive was the Ito administration's refusal to choose yakuza firms for lucrative construction contracts. This cut into Shiroo's revenue, and may have damaged his relationship with Yamaguchi-gumi leadership, since affiliate gangs must pay tribute to the yakuza families to which they belong.
The Violent Crimes of the Kudo-kai
The Kudo-kai is a particularly violent yakuza family based in Kitakyushu, on the southern island of Kyushu. In 1998, members gunned down a 70-year-old man in public, at point blank range. The alleged motive? The victim, Kunihiro Kajiwara, refused to give favorable treatment to yakuza in public works projects. In 2002, four members of the gang were arrested for the incident, and two convicted. In 2014, an alleged senior member of the gang, Satoru Nomura, was also arrested in relation to the incident.
Other attacks carried out on civilians by Kudo-kai include: alleged grenade assaults on the homes of the Kyushu Electric Power president and Saibu Gas chairman; an attack on a bar managed by an anti-organized crime activist; and multiple strikes on future-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's house, with molotov cocktails, grenades, and firearms.
Yakuza Run the Japanese Sex Trade
Marcela Loaiza, a single mother from Columbia, arrived in Japan in 1999 through an arrangement made by a broker who told her she would be working as a dancer. The deal would allow Loaiza to earn enough money to help her family escape poverty. With wide eyes and an optimistic heart, she traveled halfway across the world to find out the whole thing was a set up for the yakuza, and she would be working as a prostitute in Ikebukuro, a bustling commercial district in central Tokyo.
After two years of hell, Loaiza sought help from the Columbian embassy in Tokyo. They took her in, helped her escape, and she wrote a book about her ordeal. Her's is far from an isolated incident. "The situation was terrible back then. The women were treated like animals," said an anonymous official. The yakuza fills its sex parlors with women from all over the world, driving them into debt and taking their passports once they arrived in Japan.
In 2005, the Japanese government cracked down on this system. Since the crackdown, yakuza have resorted to offering more attractive arrangements to women, such as student visas or spouse visas. Despite the crackdown, sex trafficking is a sordid reality in Japan. According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons report released by the US State department, Japan is a “destination, source and transit country” for sex trafficking.
The Yakuza Regularly Extort Money from Companies
Of the 2,885 companies that participated in a study by Japan's National Police Agency, 337 (11.7%) report attempted yakuza shakedowns. The study further indicates that one in five companies the yakuza attempts to extort ends up paying, and five of the companies in question paid more than ¥5 million ($60,000). The most commonly targeted companies were in real estate and construction, both fields in which the yakuza commonly work.